Dry spring forcing some Alberta cattle ranchers to evaluate their herds
'In the next couple of weeks, people will have to make some hard decisions'
After last year's summer drought prompted many Alberta cattle ranchers to cull their herds, ongoing dry weather this winter and spring, especially in the southern part of the province, could mean more of the same.
"If we don't get some significant rainfall, you know, in my area in the next couple of weeks, people will have to make some hard decisions because there needs to be time for that grass to grow," said Jason Hale, vice-chair of Alberta Beef Producers and a rancher near Bassano, about an hour and a half east of Calgary.
High feed costs combined with not enough moisture to sustain grass for grazing means some ranchers are assessing how many cattle they can realistically keep.
Hale said some ranchers are selling calf-cow pairs to other producers now "because they just don't have the pasture to support them.
"As this [drought] continues, it's going to get worse."
He said individual rancher's situations vary depending on how much feed they had stockpiled and how much fall grazing they were able to do last year. In general, a lot of the grass that would usually be carried over into this year has already been used because of the drought.
"It puts us in even a worse predicament because there isn't that stockpile of forage. And to build that stockpile up, it doesn't just happen in a year," said Hale.
Last year, veterinarian and rancher Melanie Wowk made the hard decision to cull about a third of her cattle, bringing a 300 cow herd down to 200.
Wowk, chair of Alberta Beef Producers, said that because the drought was "so all encompassing" across the Prairie provinces, more cows were culled than a typical year.
Brenna Grant, executive director of Canadian beef statistics firm CanFax, says 2021 saw a culling rate of 12 per cent, which is above the long-term average of 11 per cent but not record-breaking.
However, that number is calculated only at a national level — and "eastern Canada was not in a drought situation" said Grant, meaning the culling rate could be much higher in Alberta.
Wowk anticipates another tough year.
"The pastures just haven't come and cows are continuing to move right now. So that is to say, they're also being culled right now because there's just nowhere to put them."
She said some ranchers in southern Alberta are waiting until around June 10 to make any decisions.
"They need a good three or four inch soaker to be able to maintain, you know, their numbers," said Wowk.
"If that soaker rain doesn't come, then there's going to be more cows going to town, more cow-calf pairs being sold."
Eventually, Grant says this could also affect consumers.
"If we liquidate that cowherd, we're going to have tighter supplies of beef in the future."
With files from Paula Duhatschek